Two Florida state representatives sent a letter to the city of St. Petersburg threatening to oppose any state funding until the City Council drops a plan to allocate $50,000 to the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund.
The letter signifies the left-leaning city’s first brush with preemption under Mayor Ken Welch’s administration.
Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, and Mike Beltran, R-Riverview, sent a letter Wednesday to Welch and City Council member Gina Driscoll, the chairperson of the Health, Energy, Resiliency and Sustainability committee that greenlit the proposal.
“Not only is the City’s contemplated assistance to the (Tampa Bay Abortion Fund) unlawful, it is a wasteful and frivolous use of tax dollars,” they wrote. “The City obviously has no need for any further funding from Florida taxpayers if the City intends to spend money in violation of state law.”
Last month, that committee advanced a proposal to allocate $50,000 at council member Richie Floyd’s request to the abortion fund to pay for residents’ out-of-state travel expenses for abortions. It also passed a resolution affirming the right to privacy in women’s health care decisions.
“St. Pete supports women’s right to choose,” Floyd said Friday. “If you think I’m going to be intimidated by two backbench Republicans, you’re sorely mistaken.”
In the letter, Jacques and Beltran wrote that state law bars a local government agency from expending funds on an organization that owns, operates or is affiliated with one or more clinics that perform abortions. They said the city is a government entity and the abortion fund “advertises a dozen partner clinics that perform abortions,” and therefore St. Petersburg may not provide economic assistance to the abortion fund.
They pledged to “oppose any appropriations for the city until the city disavows any effort to provide economic assistance to the TBAF,” the letter read.
“Further, the undersigned will consider voting against any budget that includes any funding earmarked for the city,” the letter continued.
The issue of legality came up during a February committee meeting where members voted 3-1 in favor of the proposal. Chief Assistant City Attorney Jeannine Williams said then that the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund doesn’t directly or indirectly manage an abortion provider. She said, under her reading of a 2016 state definition of “affiliation,” the funding would not be a conflict with Florida law.
But Beltran said that the 2016 law in question did not define how an organization would be “affiliated” with a clinic that performs abortions, saying that Williams was citing a definition from a state law about Medicaid. He said a reasonable person would see that the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund was affiliated with abortion clinics.
“TBAF says on its website that they partner with the clinics and so they are affiliated under any reasonable definition,” Beltran wrote in a text.
Jacques told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that several people, including some in St. Petersburg but also throughout the region who are anti-abortion, reached out to his office. He said he reached out to Beltran with the idea of sending a letter because Beltran is “one of the most prolific pro-life legislators in our region.”
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“For municipalities violating state law, there should be punitive action,” Jacques said.
When asked which funding would be targeted and what the total dollar amount would be, he said, “Everything’s on the table.”
Asked if that would include funding for local law enforcement, Jacques said, “I would never leave our law enforcement members behind. Law enforcement members will be taken care of.”
Jacques said he would not disclose any ongoing talks with colleagues about how much support he and Beltran have to oppose funding if the city moves forward with aid to the abortion fund, but said, “This is something we are very serious about.”
Beltran posted the letter sent to Welch and Driscoll on his Facebook page Wednesday night. He said on Friday that Jacques approached him with the idea, but that they did not shop it around to other lawmakers.
“We talked about the law and we concluded that it wasn’t only a waste of taxpayer dollars but it wouldn’t be legal because the local government is not supposed to fund abortion,” he said.
Beltran says he’s hoping the city reconsiders its position. But if not, he said he and Jacques would not support any appropriations for the city.
“If they go and fund appropriations (to the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund), then yeah, I would oppose any appropriations to the city of St. Petersburg,” Beltran said.
The proposal comes before the City Council for a final vote on April 6. Welch’s administration said it would not commit to the agreement.
Welch issued a statement through a spokesperson stating that the city has a “duty to review and debate all issues of importance to our City without regard to threats and attempts to intimidate.”
“As a home rule city, we have a process, and we will continue to follow that process of committee and council review, and my administrative decision, on the issue of funding for the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund,” he said.
State Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, said it was inappropriate for state legislators to comment on discussions that are ongoing at a local level. Democratic state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, whose district also includes St. Petersburg, agreed.
“I think it’s inappropriate that they’re weighing in on a city in my district,” Rayner-Goolsby said. “They don’t have uteruses. I’m unsure what their fixation is on reproductive rights and reproductive justice.”
Driscoll said she received the letter late Wednesday.
“I just thought, wow, this is pretty ominous,” she said. “I wasn’t entirely surprised. I had a feeling that we were risking some blowback from Tallahassee on that.”
Driscoll said the City Council now has the option to vote down the proposal or table it. She said she hasn’t spoken to the mayor about the letter.
“I don’t know how we can risk losing funding for so many other requests and needs that we have that requires support from the state over a $50,000 allocation,” she said.
Floyd said he hopes his colleagues aren’t interested in “being so blatantly blackmailed,” but he wouldn’t hold it against them. He, too, said he wasn’t surprised by the threat to withhold funding.
“Republicans vote against St. Pete allocations every year because they don’t like us,” he said. “We actually take care of our people here and we don’t stand up just for corporations, the rich and bigots like them in Tallahassee.”